Anyone who initially tuned into Feud: Bette and Joan expecting a vicious catfight between a wire-hanger-tossing Joan Crawford and a head-kicking Bette Davis might be a little surprised at the direction the miniseries took–particularly in tonight’s finale.
It was a haunting and emotional look at the final days of Joan and Bette, and how they both ultimately felt tossed aside – not only by the industry that made them famous but also by their own family and in particular, their daughters.
The one bright beacon of light was a scene in which Joan and Bette had one last hurrah at Joan’s apartment, laughing and making amends, which was of course, only ultimately a hallucination of a cancer-stricken Joan. So what do we know about how the two actually left things off?
Executive producer Ryan Murphy, who spent a few hours at Bette Davis’ house interviewing her weeks before she died in 1989, gives E! News this insight into the finale, and what he hopes viewers will take away from it all…
The dream sequence in the finale was so beautifully done but clearly took some creative license. What do we know about how things left off between Bette and Joan? How much of what we saw was fact and how much was fiction?
Well, the reason for that scene was twofold. In our research about the last month of Joan Crawford’s life, we had it from several sources that she was very ill, she had cancer and she would be found in a room hallucinating and having imaginary conversations from her past. So we were reading about that and we thought that’s so interesting. So she really did have these hallucinations, which many older people who are dying of cancer have. And when she was found having those conversations, she would be brought back to Earth and they were always conversations she was having with people from her happier days. The height of her power and everything. So there’s that.
And then when I interviewed Bette Davis, one of the things I was struck by was, she did have regrets with how the Crawford thing went down, and how she wished that she had been nicer and kinder. And it was only after she worked with Faye Dunaway that she thought , you know, Crawford really wasn’t that bad. Crawford at least was a professional and she cared about the work, and we put all of those things that Bette told me into the script. And I was struck by the fact that she died a couple weeks after I interviewed her. That she had regrets and she wished that she had reached out to Joan and she had wished that they had made some kind of peace. But she didn’t know how good she had it with Joan until she worked with Faye.
And of course when she would go on television and she realized that part of her iconography was talking shit about Joan Crawford and she liked the money and she wasn’t about to part with that. So, I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great that, since we know Joan had imaginary conversations, and Bette did tell me that she was sorry, what if we put all of those together?’ Because I do think that the audience wanted to have a moment of peace that I think they had in their minds and in their wishes, but that actually they didn’t get to have. I wanted to do that. I feel like the essence of what they said was absolutely true.
What did the finale mean to you personally?
It was emotional. Ultimately, I didn’t know why I made this season until I made it because it started off with my grandmother, and Bette Davis reminded me of my grandmother, and that’s why I got into it. And then in the end, I was so emotional about it. And I thought, you know, this really was a whole story about my feelings about her and what it’s like to be an older woman and growing older and how society treats you. But also how your own family treats you, maybe not calling you as much as they should. So it was a very personal thing for me.
Knowing that you were such a diehard Bette Davis fan, I was surprised to see that ultimately there was a lot of focus on Joan. The finale felt like a love letter to her—a redemption. Is that because you are also such a fan of Jessica Lange?
I felt that the show, other than episode six, which was just the story and that’s how we told it, I did feel that it was really a two hander. If you look at the last episodes, the Joan and Betty stuff is equally weighted. I think the reason that at least in the finale, that maybe you’re having that feeling, is that I think what Jessica did is reinvent somebody who was almost impossible to reinvent. I really feel like after Mommy Dearest, that that was what Joan Crawford was known in our culture as. This sort of wire-coat-hanger-waving creature. But what Jessica did in those last two episodes and also the series, was reinvent Joan and show you a different side of Joan and I think that is startling. But I also feel like in those last two episodes Susan was so incredible as well and I worked really closely with her in those moments. I think it sort of humanized both women in some sort of cool way. And the actresses were so into and so loved their characters.
What surprised you most about working with Susan?
There was nothing that was surprising to me about working with Susan because I met Susan in 2009 and I thought she was bawdy and earthy and salty and very opinionated and a very strong woman and that’s exactly what I got when she showed up. I thought she was great. I loved working with her. She and I are talking about doing something else together because I want to keep her in the the family. I think she’s a remarkable talent. I think what she did with Betty was extraordinary. It was a really hard thing to do because of the two women. Betty was so much – you could imitate Bette Davis’ voice. You can imitate how she walked. Crawford I think younger audiences don’t even know how Joan Crawford sounds. She wasn’t so much of a persona. I know Susan was afraid of that, and I think she knocked it out of the park. I think they were both extraordinary.
What was it like meeting Bette Davis in real life?
I was so young and I was so nervous. I researched her favorite flowers, showed up with a huge bouquet. I researched her favorite cigarettes and brought her those. I really did it up with Bette Davis. It was fun to listen to the tapes and pull stuff and put that into the show.
You can stream the full season of Feud on FXnetworks.com.